It's a sign of great works that they reveal new ideas on repeated viewings — often, a new insight with each new performance. At a time of unsettling conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, West Bay Opera's straightforward production of "Madama Butterfly" reveals Puccini's opera as a profound indictment of colonization and imperialism.
This idea comes out largely through the character of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the U.S. naval officer who marries a teenage geisha and sets up house outside Nagasaki. Pinkerton just might be the most toxic villain in Puccini's canon, in that he pretends to be anything but: charming, sincere, romantic. And then proceeds, regardless, to wreck all the lives around him.
Tenor Tom Mulder brings to Pinkerton a certain underground awkwardness, as if he's trying hard to be cool and have swagger, but really he's just faking it. Mulder's singing fits this bill also. He doesn't have the most powerful voice, but he sings with great care and craft, and matches well with his new bride in the first act's prolonged love duet.
The production design by Peter Crompton is subdued and lovely, a pair of screened-off rooms before a projection of the harbor, regularly augmented with fog banks, fireflies and cherry blossoms. I especially enjoyed the use of the screens to project silhouettes, notably the wedding-night kiss.
To a straightforward production, add a straightforward Butterfly. Toni Marie Palmertree is a classic Cio-Cio-San, even down to the ritual gestures associated with the role. She employs her soprano in a dazzling manner, regularly producing voluptuous swells of tone that send chills down the spine. The regular place of the aria "Un bel di" in the recital repertoire can obscure the fact that, in the context of the opera, it springs from a simple conversation with Butterfly's maid, Suzuki. This little telling of a dream — her vision of her long-lost husband returning to her — grows to dramatic proportions in a remarkable way, and serves as a fine demonstration of Palmertree's dynamic range.
Mezzo Mariya Kaganskaya plays a strong Suzuki — wise, mysterious, and always knowing more than she lets on. During the flower-strewing scene (in anticipation of Pinkerton's return), the unison passages between her and Palmertree are gorgeous.
Baritone Daniel Cilli performs the American consul Sharpless with calm and grace, while still managing to convey the disgust he feels at Pinkerton's abandonment of his Japanese wife. Bass Alexander Hahn gives a fearsome account of The Bonze, scaring everyone in the theater as he condemns Butterfly's conversion to Christianity. Playing the suitor Yamadori, baritone-tenor Michael Orlinski remains impressively stoic as Butterfly skewers him with insults. Yamadori's dazzling outfits are always an expected treat of this scene, and Callie Floor's scarlet robe does not let us down. Kudos to stage director Richard Harrell for getting the most from his players in these side stories.
The women's chorus does not quite capture the magic of Butterfly's entrance music, but does a beautiful job offstage with the humming chorus, as Butterfly and Suzuki await Pinkerton's return. The orchestra's delicate playing in this piece, under director Jose Luis Moscovich, is superb, along with elegant string passages in the love duet.
What fun it must be to play percussion in one of Puccini's Asian-inspired operas (the other being the Chinese-themed "Turandot"), as Henry Reid demonstrates in the third act. A short list includes side drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, glockenspiel, Japanese bells and tubular bells. We all could have done without, however, the cha-cha ringtone that one patron contributed during the death scene. I picture Cio-Cio-San setting down her knife and saying, "Oh, sorry. That's my son's soccer coach."
Speaking of Butterfly's son, Chien-Li Matilda Lin does a wonderful job of playing Sorrow, and I have always wondered what it must be like, sitting on some strange lady's lap as she sings with that scary-loud voice. The final moment, in which Sorrow offers his toy boat to his aggrieved father, is exquisite.
Oct. 21-22, 2 p.m. Sunday, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$112. 650-424-9999 or wbopera.org.